When you’re in a situation where you feel like you don’t have control, it can be easy to become paralyzed by fear and unable to move forward. This often leads to bad decision-making. But understanding how your brain works can provide you with a path for getting back on track and sticking to your goals, says Dr. Mark McLaughlin, author of Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon’s Quest to Out-Think Fear.
“It’s possible to train your brain to think differently when events make you feel stymied and you don’t know what to do,” he says.
As a practicing neurosurgeon, McLaughlin is no stranger to intense situations. To deal with the stress of his job and enhance his performance, he created a quadrant system to harness the strengths of the brain’s hemispheres. While most of us don’t make life-or-death decisions in an operating room, McLaughlin says the methodology can be applied to any situation that induces fear.
Understand the hemispheres
First, you need to understand how the brain processes information in order to leverage its capabilities. While the idea of “left-brain or right-brain dominance” is a myth, certain tasks are localized in specific areas of the brain. The left hemisphere is where some aspects of logical thinking occur, so it’s often considered to be the objective, goal-oriented part of the brain. And the right hemisphere is more subjective, looking at the big picture and providing our gut reactions. “This is where stories land that teach us how to act and behave in the world,” says McLaughlin.
Each hemisphere has strengths and weaknesses. For example, if someone delivers bad news, your left brain can get carried away focusing on all of the things that could go wrong, while the right brain takes in clues in facial expressions or gestures that could provide context or additional information. Understanding how the hemispheres work together, you can better know how to move forward.
Use a quadrant system
Instead of letting fear control your actions, be mathematical about your reaction and decision-making process by graphing out an unexpected event on an X and Y axis, says McLaughlin.
“X is your left hemisphere. It’s logical, objective, and scientific. It’s what we can all agree on in materialistic way,” he explains. “Y is your right hemisphere. It’s big picture and subjective, where things have meaning.”
When you experience an unexpected, stressful event, ask yourself, what are the objective unmistakable facts, and what does the event subjectively mean to you? And do you perceive the facts and thoughts to be positive or negative?
If the subjective thoughts and objective facts are both negative, you are in the lower left-hand quadrant. This is quadrant you’d be in if you lose a loved one or are forced to close your business. “This is the all-is-lost quadrant,” says McLaughlin. “You’ve done everything right and something goes wrong. That’s when you’re throwing your arms in air.”
If the objective facts are positive but your subjective thoughts are negative, you are in the bottom-right quadrant. This could be the feeling you get when you get a great job, but your boss is toxic. “It’s a calm-before-the-storm feeling when you experience a sense of anxiety about the future,” says McLaughlin.
When your subjective thoughts are positive, but the objective facts are negative, you are in the upper-left quadrant, which is what McLaughlin calls the resilience quadrant. For example, you may have lost your job, but found time to complete the book you always wanted to write.
“You hear people say, ‘That was an unpleasant experience, but it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me because I grew and became better,'” says McLaughlin. “You are birthing new skills in this quadrant.”
And when the subjective and objective are both positive, you are in the upper right-hand quadrant. “People often call this quadrant ‘flow,'” says McLaughlin. “It’s when we experience a level of clicking and everything is working in concert with what we believe and is of meaning in our lives. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
Unfortunately, you can’t live in flow. The other three quadrants are necessary and make life interesting and fun, says McLaughlin. “It’s a heroic journey you go through to get back up to flow,” he says.
Moving through the quadrants
To create change, realize that you’re always going to be in one of quadrants. If you’re dealing with negative facts or feelings, you are working from a place of cognitive dissonance, which is the mental discomfort you get when events are at odds with your values or actions. However, you can train your brain to use cognitive dominance, overcoming the situation to get into new quadrant.
“It’s looking at the situation, and saying, ‘Okay, I know I’m in this quadrant. How do I get to where I want to go?'” says McLaughlin.
In order to move to a new quadrant, you first have to have a clear definition of who you are. “Are you a leader? Helper? Server? What is the best version of you?” McLaughlin asks.
Next, identify one micro-goal that you can take to move the needle one notch over. Make decisions that move in a positive direction on the Y-axis. “Even one step will give you a jolt of dopamine that can create a new network in the brain,” says McLaughlin.
For example, McLaughlin recently had a young patient who died on the operating table. In order to handle the heart-breaking experience, he tapped into the quadrants.
“I was in the all-is-lost quadrant, but I had to speak to his family,” he says. “I thought about what I can do that is consistent with who I believe I am, which is a caring doctor. I talked to his family in most caring, compassionate way possible, telling them that every chance to save him was explored. I made sure I talked to them in the right setting with support people around. And I made myself available for them if they have questions in the future. Taking those steps helped me move up the Y-axis.”
Knowing where you are is comforting and is the starting point for adapting to change, says McLaughlin. “You can see the big picture and know that something will pass,” he says. “You can also see what you need to do to climb up that Y-axis.”